Mist and fog clung close to the ground, the air was clammy. Alvarez sat in the Jeep and revved the engine. As soon as I got in, he took off. I slammed back into the seat. I wondered if this was the tailings of his impatience with Alma for going into the selva and indirectly aimed at me for going with her. He was still upset. I couldn’t really blame him. He lost his beautiful horse the day before, and for reasons unknown, I would say he lost Alma a while ago.
After ten minutes of hard driving he slowed down. “Aguila, have you ever been married?”
“No, I haven’t had the pleasure.”
“Pleasure is fleeting, don’t you think?”
“I suppose one could look at it that way.” If he was setting me up for a ‘leave my wife alone,’ lesson, I was already on board.
“You studied the maps, yes?”
“Yes, I noticed the hacienda is built on some of the highest ground of the entire plateau. From south to north the plateau loses two hundred meters in altitude. The rain run-off collects and forms the cienaga. By the map it appears there are two waterfalls, one on either side of the narrow land bridge that connects the plateau to the foothills. “
Alvarez made a satisfied pout and nodded. “Good, you know something about the place. El Paradiso is over forty two thousand square hectares. It is eighty four kilometers long and forty eight kilometers wide…my domain.”
“I can’t help but notice the sun never seems to break through the clouds.” I looked up into the milky sky. “That may be a sizable complication.”
“I am sure a clever engineer such as yourself, with due concentration, without distractions, will be able to overcome any challenges.”
“Please don’t worry about me being distracted by anything or anyone here.”
“One other thing, stay out of the selva. It is a very dangerous place. A man, such as yourself, can get lost there.”
We drove a little further in silence, “Señor Alvarez, tell me about la cienaga. Leòn said it was passable, but only during a few winter months.
Again silence. Cacao trees planted in nice neat rows appeared on my right. The trees twisted out of the ground, with shiny gray bark mottled with powdery white patches. Their trunks and limbs were laden with elongated, yellow, or red or purple seed pods, all under a canopy of waxy, dark green leaves. Men with machetes hacked the pods free and women and children gathered them up off the ground and put them into oversized, woven baskets. The workers stopped and gave a respectful nod as we passed.
“Four thousand trees, if you were wondering,” Alvarez spoke over the sound of the motor, “and, three hundred workers.”
Ahead, I saw a large, weathered, clapboard building with a corrugated tin roof, “One of the warehouses?” I wondered if that was the one Alma mentioned the other day. I looked over at Alvarez, his eyes softened and a wisp of a smile crossed his lips as he looked at the warehouse and then back to the road.
“Yes.” A little further along Alvarez turned off the road and followed a narrow lane that went in between two rows of cacao trees. We traveled for at least two kilometers. The steep lane rose, took us above the mist and fog, and delivered us to a rolling, grassy meadow. Alvarez drove to a collection of large boulders that dominated its center. He stopped the Jeep. We got out.
“What do you think?”
I put my hands on my hips and slowly turned and took in the horizon. We were high enough to be able to look down on the tops of the cacao trees.
“Well Aguila, what do you think?” Alvarez asked again. He crossed his arms and leaned his hip against the Jeep’s fender.
“Definitely has potential. No mist.”
“For the better part of the day at least, there is no mist.”
We took a walk around the meadow. I imagined where the panel array might be constructed, the shed for the generator, the transmission lines. “And rain?”
“Of course. We are above the mist, not the clouds.” He crossed his arms over his chest and looked out at the meadow. “I used to ride out here as a boy.”
I nodded, I was still making mental notes and not paying much attention.
“Those were much happier days.”
“Certainly fewer cares and responsibilities,” I felt obliged to give Alvarez my full attention.
“What do you mean?”
“I have lived my entire life here at El Paradiso.” Alvarez’s tone became softer and uncomfortably intimate. ”My parents passed away when I was much younger, not even twenty-three. After their passing I devoted every moment to making sure El Paradiso would prosper and remain a worthy legacy for my children.
“You have other family, yes?”
“No, I am an only child. The strange irony, the first Count Hèctor Alvarez, my name sake, and his wife had sixteen children. As the following generations came to be, the number of off spring dwindled; my great grandfather had three children, my grandfather, two, and you are looking at the last Alvarez.”
The information became an instant burden. I didn’t know why he was telling me this. I ventured into his reality, “No children, as of yet?”
His intimate manner changed to a defensive response, “Do you see any children?”
I shook my head, ’No’ and reflexively looked at the pistol on his hip.
Alvarez noticed and offered a reassuring but terse smile as a peace offering. “Aguila, don’t worry, the pistol is reserved for the indios and wildlife. I’ve used it on both, helps keep both in line.” Alvarez studied my expression for my reaction at what he just said, then shifted back to the soft and friendly tone, “But to answer your question about children…no, no children. No children yet…I was hoping with Julia, such a wonderful person, she so loved it here. I miss her very much.”
I wondered if his admission of using his pistol on the indios was true or a bit of bluster to either frighten or impress me. I took what he said as probably true and gladly followed his train of thought to his dead wife.
“Alma mentioned Julia after dinner that first night. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“As am I. It is a strange irony, that for as long as an Alvarez lives on and maintains the plateau the land will remain in the family. When the line ends, El Paradiso will revert back to the state.” He looked deep into my eyes, I can only imagine, to make sure I understood his dilemma. When I nodded that I understood the gravity of his situation, his demeanor changed quickly. He became amiable, chummy. “Are you getting on well with her?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you like Alma, does she like you?” He gave an encouraging gesture with his hands. “Come Aguila, it’s a simple question.”
“I suppose I like her, she’s interesting. We have poetry in common. I imagine she likes me. I’ve given her no reason not to.” I felt like I was apologizing for something. “Señor Alvarez, why do you ask?”
“Enough with the title, ‘señor’, I see us as equal men. My name is Hèctor.”
“I ask again, Hèctor, what does it matter if I like Alma, or if she likes me?”
“It does matter. But for now, let us work on your assessment of the project? What will you need from me?”
“What I really need to do is check in at the office. You said you had a HAM radio. I’m sure they are anxious to hear from me. It’s been twelve days since I last talked with them.”
Alvarez cupped his chin in his palm and tapped his lips with his finger. “HAM radio, yes, I’ll take you to it. It’s in the warehouse.” I noticed a bit of impatience and consternation in his tone.
We left the meadow and descended into the mist and back to the outbuilding. Hèctor pushed the door open with his foot. I followed him in. Empty boxes were neatly stacked against the walls. A hammock hung between two uprights and a hat hung a peg. He opened the door to a small office, went to a draped table and pulled away the cloth covering. I saw a tarnished, bullet type microphone on a stand, a set of brown, Bakelite earphones and a very vintage HAM radio.
I was a little concerned. I sat on the stool and took a closer look. It was a Collins 75A-4. Everything was dusty and the case had some small patches of rust on it. “Well, this thing is a relic,” I said with a grin.
“It was my grandfather’s. Look under the table, there are pedals.”
The pedals, via a bicycle wheel and belt, turned a dynamo. The dynamo provided the electricity to power the radio. I liked the simplicity. ”And it works?”
“Yes, the last time I used it, it did. But, that was six years ago. Try it.”
I pumped the pedals and the needles slowly moved. A dim light glowed behind the frequency dial.
Alvarez nodded, “It takes a minute or two for the tubes to warm up, but it functions.”
I slowed my pedaling. “How do you communicate with the rest of the world?”
“I have no need to, everything I need or want is here at El Paradiso.”
“And if there is a medical emergency?” I stopped pedaling and watched the needles sink back to their pegs and the light behind the dial fade.
“I put no faith in others. I sat right there where you are and pedaled and called and called for hours and days trying to get medical help for Julia.”
“Were you able to reach anyone?”
Alvarez’s hands curled into fists and his eyes narrowed. “Oh yes, Ecuador’s great military and a doctor named Cantù, in Iquito, Peru. They said they would come. They never came.”
“Life is only for the strong…” Hèctor relaxed his stance and continued with his uncomfortable intimacy, “That is in the past. And anyway, that brujo y la bruja, Leòn and Maria Terèsa tend to the sick with their herbs. We must look to the future, yes?”
Alvarez showed me the log with the call letters. He gave me a lesson on how to operate the radio. I had the company’s frequency and call letters on a card in my wallet.
“Pedal, my friend,” he said.
I pedaled for a minute or so. Hèctor put on the earphones, made a few adjustments and spoke into the microphone. It wasn’t long before he got a scratchy answer. He gave me the microphone and earphones. I spoke to Josè Galvan. Galvan was one of our project managers. He was on site in Columbia. We communicated on the company’s portable shortwave. I asked Galvan to tell the office I was well; and that they should get the information on the Alvarez project and to expect to hear in maybe two weeks. He also had a message for me to stay on schedule for a ninety day project.
We left the warehouse and headed north. All in all, the road wasn’t too bad. It was rutted by the daily downpours but that was to be expected. Alvarez drove to the far reach of the plateau. The descent to the edge of la cienaga was imperceptible. The topographical features were quite unique. The far edge of the plateau rose up in a two meter high fold of rock that formed a ragged lip and held the runoff waters in a huge shallow basin. The so called water falls, of which there were many, were more trickles that ran over the lowest parts and through chinks in the “lip.”
We stopped when the ground became too marshy and soft. I still felt strange calling him by his Christian name. In all honesty, this would be the only way I’d ever be in contact with a man like Alvarez. “Hèctor, it is cooler here.”
“Yes, cooler because of the air coming down through the passes and valleys from the Andes.”
There were hardly any insects or birds or fish or frogs. Lazy bubbles pushed through the green scum that floated on the stagnant water. “And, on the map in the library, I saw the Great Anaconda was the master of the cienaga.” I said with a smile.
Alvarez smiled back and shrugged. “There may be one or two in there, but the Great Anaconda, well my friend, that is, of course, a myth, a myth that I use to my advantage. The indios who may want to leave the plateau, well, will not enter the cienaga for fear of meeting the great snake. I have told my workers the Great Anaconda is my ally and asks me which one of them is worthy and good hearted. They are so removed from their ancestor’s primal knowledge that they fear the selva as well. I have a permanent and docile work force. They drink their chicha and make their babies; a simple life.”
“Where is the land bridge?” Getting supplies to the plateau in a safe and timely manner would be a challenge.
Alvarez pointed to the Jeep. We got in and drove a few kilometers to the east. He stood up and leaned against the windshield frame for balance. “Give me the binoculars,” he said. I handed them to him, stood too, and held on to the windshield frame. Alvarez made a quick survey of the horizon. He stopped and leaned a little forward. He pointed, “There,” and handed the binoculars to me.
I saw a definite trail head that was marked by two knee high stacks of stones maybe ten meters apart, three hundred meters away, across the marsh. “You say this is passable, yes?”
“There is a rock shelf just under the surface. It is slippery and uneven here and there, but passable.”
“What about a helicopter?”
Alvarez became sullen, vehement, “I will never pay their bribe, those bastards. That’s what they want, you know, it’s always money. They say it is too risky because of the mist and fog. I gave them their money and when I needed them to help Julia, they never came. ”
I didn’t pursue the question.
His anger went as quickly as it came. “Do you understand the lay of the land, better?” Alvarez lowered himself into the seat and started the Jeep.
I nodded and sat. “Yes, I think the meadow site will work.”
We headed back. The drive was leisurely. Alvarez stopped at one of the many pueblitos we passed. “Ah yes, Emilio, we must stop here. There is something I must do, sort of a christening as it were.”
The pueblitos were nothing more than five or six shanties or shacks hunkered around a communal fire pit. The families greeted us with great respect. We stood a head taller. Alvarez reached out and took an infant from its mother. I immediately thought of Sylvie. He looked the baby over; it was a boy. He held the little fellow up over his head and smiled. He handed the baby back to its mama and nodded his approval to the beaming parents. Hèctor reached into his pocket and pulled out a jackknife and gave it as a gift to the excited and pleased father.
The others formed a crescent around us and moved in close. Alvarez inspected his charges; the men and boys he gave a pat on the shoulder, the girls, well, he was a bit more direct with his heavy caresses. Some of the older girls either allowed him his liberties and giggled, while others found his advances too intrusive and shrunk away. The visit ended with everyone bowing and smiling at the Patròn.
Back in the Jeep, Alvarez looked over at me. “Do you have any children?”
“It’s quite possible,” I said lightly. All I could see in my mind was Sylvie holding hands with her excited husband who was so happy he was going to be a father.
“Well, these are my children, as it were. I would dearly love for Alma to become a mother. I would finally have an heir, and she might come back down to earth, and start being a wife and partner.”
For the love of God, I did not want to get into such an intimate and personal conversation. I heard Alma’s side of the story. Alvarez looked over at me with an expectant expression on his face. I softened, “She doesn’t want to have children?” That was a subject that hadn’t come up.
“It isn’t so much if she can, I am sure she is able to. Women are so damned unpredictable…fickle.”
“Some women, for sure.” I thought I’d take the high road. I didn’t understand why Alma hadn’t left. She was obviously unhappy. Hèctor was obviously unhappy as well.
Hèctor shook his head and narrowed his eyes, “I should never have married her. What a foolish mistake.” I didn’t have to ask; Alvarez waxed on, “My wife Julia thought a lot of her cousin. I only knew Alma through what Julia told me about her, and the few photos she sent. I thought the resemblance between the two was uncanny. Alma looked like a younger version of Julia. She is six years younger than Julia, you know.”
I nodded and took in what he said. “Alma mentioned to me that she came here to respect Julia’s wishes.”
“Julia was always so thoughtful… and yes, Alma did come here for that reason. It was almost a year after,” he cleared his throat and his voice wavered…” Julia…passed away. I didn’t care anymore. Julia was my life. She brought such happiness and hope to El Paradiso.”
“You must have loved each other quite deeply. “ Sylvie flashed before my mind’s eye, this time as the desperate woman who came to me in the rain.
“I still love her. I know it is impossible loving someone who cannot return your love, be they dead or alive.”
I had a sudden rush of empathy. “Yes, I understand that quite well.”
Hèctor arched his brow as a gesture that he realized we were brothers in the tragi-comedy of love. Although, after that bizarre dream with the colt and the jaguar, and such carnage; my ‘love’ for Sylvie had ebbed some. But still, here we were, two atoms on a dust mote of a world hurtling through an endless void, in love with people who were dead to us.
“When Alma first arrived I couldn’t help but be drawn to her. She looked so much like Julia. Alma saw how empty my soul was and the work needed to put things in the right order here at El Paradiso. Everything was a mess, the hacienda, me, even the cacao and coffee suffered.
“I let her do whatever she wanted. I didn’t care. After all, my place is on the plateau. Giving her that task, those responsibilities changed her. Not to sound like one of her poems, but she blossomed. Putting things in order made her happy; gave her purpose. Maria Terèsa and Leòn were relieved. The house was straightened, rooms painted, furniture moved around, photos taken down and stored. Alma worked hard and brought new life to El Paradiso.
“I didn’t know how to feel about Alma. She looked a lot like Julia, she wasn’t Julia. More than once I called her, Julia. It was a strange circumstance to be attracted to Alma, I truly was. She is a beautiful woman, is she not?”
“Yes, a very beautiful woman,” I said and nodded along with Alvarez.
“So Aguila, what am I supposed to do? I lost the woman I so dearly loved. Here right in front of me, a beautiful young woman appears, as if she has come out of a dream, to save El Paradiso and help me.”
“Maybe she is here for a bigger reason. Your wife Julia maybe hoped Alma might take her place.” I reflected and wondered if I too was part of that bigger reason.
“It was much too early for me. I was still grieving. I still grieve.”
“It can be hard to let go of someone, but it has to be done.”
Hèctor hesitated for a moment, frowned, recovered and continued, “The longer she stayed, the more my attraction to her grew. Damn whatever that emotion is; that combination of animal attraction and resulting blindness to everything practical and sacred. Out of respect for Julia, I just couldn’t, I wouldn’t pursue Alma. And anyway, she said she was going to be a university professor. She said she was going to leave as soon as she heard she was accepted for a position. That was another reason I did not bother. So I settled for the life of a widower. I don’t want to say I avoided Alma, but I made myself scarce by being away on the plateau.
“Her three months visit turned to four, than five, then six. I didn’t understand why she stayed on.”
I was tempted to interrupt and suggest Alma stayed on because he, El Paradiso, and the selva captured her soul.
“One day she insisted she come out to the plateau with me. I tried to talk her out of it, but she can be very stubborn... like a spoiled child. I thought better of it, but I gave in. Alma was just learning how to ride. I remember the mist and fog was very thick that morning. And there was no sun to speak of. I could feel it in the air; we were due for a tormenta peseda, a heavy rain. The rain came sooner than I thought it would. We were caught in the open. A bolt of lightning struck less than a hundred meters away. I had to rein El Cid hard, poor Alma was thrown off and Athena ran away.
“The rain came in torrents. Lightning struck quite close again. I jumped down from El Cid and ran to Alma. The fall knocked her senseless; she was unable to walk so I picked her up and carried her to the warehouse, which fortunately was very close. I knelt on the dirt floor and held her in my arms. We were wet to the skin.
“It was strange, until then I had always looked for similarities between Julia and Alma. Alma could never measure up. I realized how unfair of me to think about her that way. As I looked down at her nestled in my arms, I saw a young, smart, pretty woman, who had restored El Paradiso and me. A sudden gust of wind blew the door open.”
Hèctor hesitated. He leaned in close to my face and held my upper arm in his hand. He studied my eyes. “Believe me when I tell you what happened. I looked up when I saw the door open and felt the cool air. Just outside, in the mist, I saw Julia. Aguila, I saw her. She floated just above the ground in the center of a beautiful sunburst.”
Maybe it was my dull-eyed lack of surprise or Alvarez’s notion that I might think him vulnerable or needy but he stiffened his lips and his intimate countenance abruptly changed. He hissed at me with a disgusted sigh. “I don’t care if you believe me or not.”
“Please sir, I have no reason not to believe you. You know what you saw.”
That seemed to mollify him. He visibly relaxed and continued, “She spoke to me, and she said it in her own loving way, ’Free my soul and you will find peace in caring for another.’ Then she disappeared. Alma did not open her eyes; she was still dazed. I knew she didn’t hear or see Julia, that message was only for me. The tormenta passed and I took Julia’s words to heart. I would care for Alma, I would take care of her.
“I wasn’t sure how able Alma was, I knew she hurt her arm and she seemed confused. I put her on El Cid, and we returned to the hacienda. Alma asked I order a bath.” Hèctor stopped and pinched the end of his chin in contemplation, “How well do you know women?”
I almost chuckled but I controlled myself. “As well as the next fellow, I suppose.”
“When the water was ready I helped her into the bathroom. I was about to leave when she insisted I stay.
“She quietly began to undress, right in front of me. I didn’t know what to think. I’m a man not easily shocked, but I was speechless. Alma kicked off her low boots and stepped out of her trousers. She took my hands and guided them to the buttons on the front of her blouse. By the way she looked at me, I knew she wanted me to unbutton them. After all, she did hurt her arm. I thought maybe she needed help getting undressed. I unbuttoned the buttons and I helped slip the blouse off. She grimaced when she had to move her left arm. There she stood before me in nothing but her underclothes. I tried to leave but Alma stepped in front of me and gave me such a soulful look with those golden eyes. It was like I was under her spell.
“Of course I could have pushed past her. But at that moment she seemed so slight, so fragile. Something happened, Aguila, something that made me feel very protective of her, and from that moment on as I helped her undress, I did so without any feeling of lust or desire. I took Julia’s words to heart.”
“Interesting,” was the best I could come up with. I shared that same feeling when Alma and I were at the jungle pool. “Dare I ask what happened next?”
“Nothing. After I helped her in the tub, I knelt and bathed her. I made sure to be careful her shoulder and clumsily washed her hair. I went to my room and returned with a nice towel and my robe for Alma to wear. Because of her shoulder I was very gentle. Afterwards we quietly ate dinner. We both acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.”
I nodded and digested what Alvarez had to say. I could tell he was sincere. Alma was correct; Hèctor was a simple man. He had a sense of decency, propriety and morality, albeit his morality did not include the natives. And, what I had seen so far, I knew it would take a lot for him to compromise himself.
“So why do you think it was a mistake that you married her? As you said, she is an attractive woman, and she did help you.”
“That my friend, was my biggest folly. After Julia appeared to me I was torn. I knew what she said was true, but I wasn’t ready to let her go. I did two cowardly things. To avoid Alma I spent more and more time on the plateau, occasionally for the better part of a week. The coffee and cacao were better off because of my attentions, but being gone had the opposite effect on Alma.
“When I returned she greeted me. Oh, I could tell she was glad to see me, but I didn’t encourage her. I hadn’t made up my mind if I had any feelings for her. She seemed happy enough to manage the hacienda, do her gardening, write her poems and paint her hideous water colors. So, I was courteous and tried to be thoughtful. ..How old are you Emilio?”
“I’ll be forty,” I all but mumbled. His question only reminded me of the night before, and the crystal realization of how pathetic my life truly was.
“You’re still a young man. I am fifty-four years old, Alma, is much closer to your age, she is twenty-eight. I married her because I need an heir, and she is a beautiful young thing.” He added with uncharacteristic uncertainty, “And I believe she loves me.”
“All good reasons,” I didn’t want to bring up the obvious, that Alma was not happy.
“As I said, with me being away on the plateau, Alma was left to her own designs. I was adamant about only one thing, and that was she stay out of the selva. Of course she wouldn’t. I was not her husband then; she didn’t have to obey me.
“The selva is a dangerous place with its fierce beauty and attraction. It is easy to fall under its spell. It is another world, Emilio, beyond our world. There are physical dangers, but the dangers of becoming part of that whole, that is the real danger. The selva can capture your soul, take away your very essence.
“What do you mean?”
Alvarez moved in closer. He slipped into that badgering intimacy. “When I was a boy, my father and mother told me to stay on the plateau, to stay out of the selva. From my bedroom window I could only look down on the endless expanse of the tree tops and the mountains and valleys that ended at the horizon. I wondered how the Waorani were not frightened to live in such an unpredictable place. You see for them, they are never lost; everywhere is home.
“You saw for yourself on your trip here, the dangers there are. The jungle even reaches up and onto the plateau. That damned jaguar came up out of the selva as if she was called, to kill El Cid. Those big cats stay below. They were never up here before…well before Julia died.”
I flinched when I was reminded of the jaguar on the balcony and shuddered inwardly when I thought about the centipede that crawled over my boot and into the leaves.
“The indios look on the selva as more than just home, but the entire world. Their world is both in the flesh and the spirit. Everything has a spirit, even the rocks and water and the air, and all of us who enter become part of that world, like it or not.”
“Yes, Leòn warned me to stay out of it. He’s afraid a white man like me might lose my soul there.” The day before yesterday, I would have scoffed at the idea.
“It isn’t so much that you lose your soul there, it’s more you become part of the whole, part of the selva. The indios believe the selva is one living thing. If you embrace it, you become a part of it. I will never embrace it.”